The Age Of Anti-Aging: Media Hype And The Myth Of Ageless Baby Boomers

My boomer generation continues to be largely unaware of the ageist undertow in America’s youth-consumed consumer culture.

SAN FRANCISCO–As a journalist, my perspective on aging is somewhat unusual, in that in 1972, when I began writing my book, Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously (1974), I believed I’d somehow found my way to the cutting edge of a new frontier in the movement for social justice.

Opposing ageism was a cause I was sure everyone would see manifest in their morning mirrors. Until that period, few in the “Movement” had taken old age very seriously, especially as a looming issue of inequality.

I’d arrived in San Francisco from Minneapolis in time to witness the aftermath of the media-vaunted Summer of Love, as well as the acceleration of the antiwar and social-change movements. I was offered the book project shortly after spending a year as an editor at Rolling Stone magazine and expected Senior Power to be a limited endeavor.

However, after two years immersed in the subject (as both a first-time author and a new father at age 28) and while also working full time, I found myself fascinated by the depths of issues in aging that remained largely unexplored. I also became increasingly baffled by the undercurrent of resistance to aging, even as a dynamic topic for American journalism.

Now as a “grandpop” (what my 5-year-old grandson calls me), I remain just as confused about how my boomer generation continues to be largely unaware of the ageist undertow in America’s youth-consumed consumer culture.

While one aging boomer after another – and the increasing ranks of 50-plus Gen Xers — confronts the convoluted challenges of aging, often through care for their elderly parents, the long-term expectation of this aging nation would foment an era of change has dimmed as media attention, marketing forces and political campaigning have zeroed in on the 83.1 million Millennials.

Ageism—the Beat Goes On

America’s commercial and political chase after youth dollars and votes has placed a drag on the country’s ability to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of today’s much vaunted longevity revolution. Public understanding remains lacking in our nation’s need to address such disparate areas as family caregiving, older adult–friendly and safe environments, affordable (and universally designed) senior housing options, elder abuse prevention, and, especially, the widely predicted retirement-finance crisis.

At the same time, the media’s appeal to older Americans too often translates into marketable nostalgia for the Sixties (cue PBS pledge break here!) and with fiftieth anniversaries, some of them truly historic (the Selma march, the moon landing, three shattering assassinations), and some of more questionable gravity (Woodstock, Altamont, and, yes, the Summer of Love). My view, from more than a half-century in the countercultural epicenter of San Francisco, is that the headlines have largely missed the essential stories of (cue The Who) “M-m-my Generation.”

In paging again through my book Senior Power recently, I came across passage after passage that read as true today as they did when I typed them on my Remington manual. Certainly, there have been improvements, such as enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with its requirements for wheelchair access to public buildings and transportation.

As for the baby boomer trinity of sex, drugs, and rock ’n‘ roll, though, the sexual revolution has long since gone the way of cable TV, both in the crude stream of bleeps and with shows like Frankie and Grace, in which Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda wrestle in their 70s with relationships of all kinds.

Drugs? Marijuana is legal in 26 states, with more pending in 2017, according to Governing Magazine, and numerous articles reveal that aging boomers may benefit the most—not from getting high but in gaining relief from pain and nausea.

As for rock music, all you need to know is that Keith Richards is still at it at age 73. But the fundamental issues of aging—and ageism—haven’t much changed.

Today, age continues as one of the last areas of openly uttered bias across the American cultural spectrum. In early 2017, not only did U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, MD, laugh while stating that brain surgery is a wasted “investment” on “old geezers,” but also the otherwise progressive Daily Show host Trevor Noah ridiculed President Trump as “America’s Xenophobic Old Grandpa” and as a “King Over the Hill.”

Following the 2016 election, pundits from the left and right, such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator David Brooks, bemoaned the unlikelihood that Donald Trump could change because “he’s 70.”

I posted a New America Media commentary, headlined “Let Trump Be Held Accountable, Not Just ‘Too Old to Change.’” And Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s book Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump shows the 45th U.S. President’s behavior hasn’t changed in at least 30 years (Trudeau, 2016).

As the still dynamic Tina Turner (at age 77) might sing today, “What’s age got to do with it?”

When Ageism and Racism Intersect

Regarding only one example of ageism then and now, I opened Senior Power and found, “Ageism is particularly virulent against those who are already vulnerable to other kinds of discrimination. A political observer of the problems of the aged, Professor Robert Binstock, has written, ‘In almost every measurable respect black older people are about twice as badly off as the rest of the aged population’”

What about the double jeopardy of age and race? A 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation report states, “The official poverty rate in 2013 was nearly three times larger among Hispanic adults than among white adults ages 65 and older (20 percent versus 7 percent) and two and a half times larger among black adults ages 65 and older (18 percent).”

And in 2010, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging Fernando Torres-Gil, also a past president of the American Society on Aging, criticized the false image of largely white affluence presented in a CNBC special called Tom Brokaw Reports: Boomer$!

Disappointing to many who work in aging, Brokaw, the very same journalist who had rehabilitated the “Greedy Geezer” image of World War II-era older adults as “The Greatest Generation,” defaulted to a stereotypical depiction of aging baby boomers as “history’s wealthiest and most influential generation,” who pursue a “unique and unyielding quest to preserve their youth.”

Criticizing the program’s lack of diversity, Torres-Gil asserted, “Latino baby boomers are an important bellwether of the [coming] demographic changes. Yet, Latino baby boomers remain a largely hidden population, and little is understood about their socio-demographic and economic characteristics.”

The Business of Age Discrimination

One doesn’t have to be impoverished to feel the effects of age discrimination in the 21st century. In his 2014 book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, Chris Farrell noted about older workers, “Far too many employers are hostile to the idea of hiring someone with gray hair. Negative stereotypes are rampant, cutting older workers out of new projects and corporate initiatives,” despite ample evidence that more mature workers are highly reliable and do not cost more in insurance and other expenses.

Farrell added, “Society’s values are continuing to evolve, with aging boomers fighting for respect and a place at the job table. But the age movement has much more to do to change everyday values and employer attitudes.”

Another assessment of the negative consequences of persistent public attitudes dismissive of older people comes from Colin Milner, founder of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA). Milner, who has served as an adviser to the World Economic Forum has been sharply critical of ageism in both the public and private sectors.

In ICAA’s Journal of Active Aging last year, Milner said that the U.S. government remains “behind the curve.” He noted, “For example funding for senior centers has been flat for many years. Logically, that funding should increase because of the number of people getting older, but it hasn’t. We also lack national policies around physical activity and aging.”

Milner continued, “While things are better than they were, older populations are still invisible in many areas. We keep talking about the need to invest in our youth, because they’re the future. But so is the older population.”

He stressed that businesses neglecting the aging baby boomer markets today are failing to recognize, according the Nielsen Insights, that “one out of every two dollars spent in the U.S. is in the hands of people over 50, as are seven out of 10 disposable dollars.”

What’s more, Milner said, “Globally, 90 percent of all marketing dollars are spent on individuals below age 50, according to Admap magazine.” That focus, he lamented, “sends a message to people over that age that you’re invisible.”

Voices Raised Against Ageism

As I revisited Senior Power for this article, I rediscovered many sources of inspiration that kept me returning to issues in aging for so long.

In an afterword in Senior Power over 40 years ago, Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, wrote, “When we consider the increasing numbers of people over 65, and in America’s future, it is very important that there be a new public awareness of what the elders can contribute to our society. We also need an aroused awareness of the force of institutional policies, which demean and diminish old people—while denying us the rich resources, experience, and accumulated skills that the elders can feed into the political processes of our time.” Kuhn had no tolerance for statements such as, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”

Ironically, a leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, first uttered that phrase, not as an expression of youthful self-indulgence, but as part of a declaration of higher principles. In 1964, Jack Weinberg, then age 24, said not long after he made the remark that “he did not actually believe the statement,” according to the Washington Post. He explained that he was reacting testily to a question of whether outside adults were manipulating the Free Speech Movement.

Weinberg was not the only movement leader to disdain the quip. Satirist Paul Krassner, who coined the term “Yippies” during the explosive 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, said in an e-mail for this article, “I didn’t like the ageism aspect.”

But, Krassner conceded, “Many Yippies borrowed the phrase.” He added, “It was an easy slogan,” one also quickly co-opted by commercial media. As the editor of the groundbreaking satirical magazine, The Realist, Krassner, now 85, noted, “Tampax promoted its tampon as ‘Something over thirty you can trust.’”

Goodwill and Service: Baby Boomers March On

Of course, ageism will continue to resurface almost as quickly as one can say “social media.” With the current period marked by pessimism and the rise of scapegoating in many corners of American demography, I return for reassurance to the firm foundation—one that so many Americans have established—of caring in service to one another.

I’ve witnessed it while interviewing a geriatrician about her years of working to improve end-of-life care across many cultures, or in being moved during a workshop at an aging conference by a program director’s description of working around government barriers to assist people who are aging with developmental disabilities beyond their elderly parents’ ability to care for them. In these and many other moments I feel grateful to be reporting in the midst of so many brilliant and kind representatives of fields we abstractly refer to as social sciences and human services.

Although they include people of every generation, the preponderance of those I see in leadership tend to come from the group of those not-so-self-absorbed baby boomers—the ones who somehow preserved their trusty sense of goodwill toward mankind well past the age of 30. Many have persevered through the austerities of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush years; and in various service areas of the field of aging, the Democratic administrations haven’t offered much better.

So coping in the Trump era may bring about not much that is new. The Me Generation? Not this group. I’ve seen my fellow baby boomers excel more as the Do-More-with-Less Generation. I’d call them the “We Care Generation.”

Paul Kleyman is director of the Ethnic Elders Newsbeat at New America Media in San Francisco and, as the national coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations, he is the editor of the Network’s e-mail newsletterGenerations Beat Online. This article is adapted from his essay in the 2017 “Summer of Love” issue of Generations, journal of the American Society on Aging.